Iraqi army blames Islamic State for Mosul deaths
Military says there is no evidence an air strike by US-led coalition hit building
Iraqis inspect the damage following air strikes in Mosul. Photograph: Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images
Iraq’s military said on Sunday that 61 bodies were recovered from a collapsed building that Islamic State had booby-trapped in west Mosul, but there was no sign the building had been hit by an air strike by the US-led coalition.
The military statement differed from reports by witnesses and local officials, who said that as many as 200 bodies had been pulled from the building after a coalition strike last week targeting Islamic State militants and equipment in the city’s Jadida district.
What happened during the March 17th incident remains unclear.
The details are difficult to confirm as Iraqi forces battle with Islamic State, also known as Isis, to recapture densely-populated areas in the western half of Mosul, the militant group’s last stronghold in Iraq.
Iraqi forces on Sunday hit Isis positions with helicopter strikes, as well as exchanging gunfire with the militants and firing rockets near the al-Nuri mosque in west Mosul, where the Isis leader declared his caliphate nearly three years ago.
One federal police officer said they had killed a militant in a suicide vest trying to infiltrate their position.
At the north edge of Mosul, Iraqi army divisions raided and entered the Badush cement factory, to where militants had retreated, Lt Col Ali Jassem of the 9th armoured division said.
Army units are also clearing villages to the north of the city.
As combat continues, the Jadida incident highlights the complexity of fighting in west Mosul, where militants hide among families, using them as shields and putting at risk as many as half a million people still caught in Isis-held areas.
Coalition officials and Iraq’s Shia-led government are also wary of incidents that could alienate residents of the mainly Sunni city and fuel the kind of sectarian tensions that helped Isis’s rise.
The US-led coalition backing Iraqi forces on Saturday said it carried out a strike on Isis militants and equipment in the area where the civilian deaths were reported, and that it was investigating these reports.
It did not give figures for any casualties or details on targets.
The Iraqi military command said witnesses told troops that the building was booby-trapped and militants had forced residents inside basements to use them as shields.
Isis militants had also fired on troops from houses, it said.
“A team of military experts from field commanders checked the building where the media reported that the house was completely destroyed.
“All walls were booby-trapped and there is no hole that indicates an air strike,” it said.
“Sixty-one bodies were evacuated,” the statement said.
A coalition air strike had hit the area at the time, though there was no sign it struck that building, it said.
The military casualty figure was considerably lower than that given by local officials.
A municipal official said on Saturday that 240 bodies had been pulled from the rubble of the building.
A local politician and two witnesses say a coalition air strike may have hit a large truck bomb nearby, triggering a blast that collapsed buildings.
Ghazwan al-Dawoodi, head of the local Nineveh Governorate human rights council, said his team had visited the site and that 173 people were killed after militants forced them into a bunker and then opened fire on gunships to prompt an air strike.
Iraqi forces have retaken the east of Mosul and half of the west.
Thousands of people are fleeing Iraq’s second city each day to escape the fighting and increasingly difficult conditions.
Aid groups are scrambling to build more camps to cope with the surge.
The Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights said that since the campaign to retake western Mosul began on February 19th, there have been unconfirmed reports that nearly 700 civilians have been killed by government and coalition air strikes or Islamic State action.
Isis militants have used car bombs, snipers and mortar fire to counter the coalition’s offensive.